Monday, August 29, 2016


Originally published February 12 & 15, 2016

We are now experiencing The Last FM Translator Gold Rush. Everyday there is news about the avalanche of new FCC filings by AM broadcasters seeking FM translators. Recently the FCC decided that the way to “save AM” is to move AM stations to the FM via translators. 

I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but that’s the way it is.

 FM translators can now repeat ANY station they choose, provided the owner of that station approves. They can rebroadcast commercial stations and HD channels.

When the FCC approved satellite fed FM translators in 1988 and 1992, they did not intend to establish translator networks, but that is what we have now. 

Satellite-fed FM translators now operate almost anywhere in the country. They are found in most the nation's largest markets, hardly under-served areas.

The chart on the right shows the dramatic growth in the number of FM translators year by year.


When and where did the FM translator business begin? Probably it started in 1963 in the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota.

Keith Anderson, Father of the translator
Keith Anderson was making lots of bucks with cable TV microwave systems and VHF TV translators.  Anderson manufactured “boosters” for TV stations in the Rocky Mountain West.  This was around the time John Malone (who founded cable giant Tele-Communications Inc. – TCI) was hooking up his first cable subscribers in Casper, WY.

Around this time, Anderson was approached by religious FM broadcasters who were seeking a way to cover more territory.  They suggested he manufacture translators similar to VHF-TV translators for FM stations. Keep in mind FM broadcasting didn’t come into vogue until the 1970s.

Anderson’s units were low power devices initially 1-watt.  Soon, at the urging of FM broadcasters, Anderson began building 100-watt and 250-watt units. They worked pretty well and religious FM broadcasters bought quite a few of them.

One of the religious broadcast engineers who saw the potential of FM translators was Harold Enstrom, an engineer at Chicago's Moody Bible Institute. He was in charge of expanding Moody’s radio coverage.  He began tinkering and improving Anderson’s devices.

In 1975 Enstrom moved to Rapid City, SD (near Anderson’s workshop) and became part of Tepco Electronics. A broadcast equipment manufacturer, Robert Jones, approached Enstrom with an idea: Build and market solid-state FM translators that were more reliable and had better audio fidelity. A $385,000 Small Business Administration loan started the ball rolling.

Enstrom, in a 2004 Radio World interview by writer/engineer Scott Fybush [link] spoke about the beginning of Tepco’s translator business:

“I began sending mailers to every FM station in the country. The pitch was this: If you locate a translator in the center of a small community, you can be heard just as well as a 100-kilowatt station 50 miles away.

Orders poured in and the Tepco translators became tremendous success. I was getting so many inquiries (about translators), after a while I didn't have time to write.”

Enstrom moved to Florida and founded FM Technology Associates. He continued selling Tepco Translators until his death in 2007. Keith Anderson, who died in 2014, became a major player in the satellite TV industry. Tepco is still in business.  See more about them at [link].


Moody Bible Institute (MBI) then opened the door for satellite-fed translators in 1985. MBI filed a rulemaking petition with the FCC to allow programming on translators from sources outside the local area. They called them satellators.

At the time MBI had seen the success of satellite distribution of radio programming. NPR was an early leader in the use of satellite distribution.  Satellite Music Network (SMN) and Transtar were distributing 24/7 music formats to stations. They were reliable, inexpensive and had far greater audio fidelity than telephone lines.

MBI’s proposed rulemaking met fierce resistance from the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), NPR and others. After extensive comment periods, the FCC approved satellite fed translators in 1988.  

Ironically, MBI never built their satellator network. But their FCC petition made possible today’s proliferation of religious noncommercial satellite-fed FM translator stations. MBI laid the foundation for K-LOVE and Air1 from Educational Media Foundation (EMF), American Family Radio, Pensacola Christian College and many others now clogging the FM dial.

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